Last year we were at a technology trade show. One of the more interesting booths we saw was a small IOT firm from the Philippines. Their product was innovative and fit into the event very well. But I was only able to understand this because we spoke in English. Any visitor who did not speak English (or Tagalog) was unfortunately not able to communicate with them.
For non-Japanese people at public trade shows and exhibitions, there is no way to know for sure if you’ll be able to communicate with exhibitors and guests before you actually show up. However, there are a few indicators which can allow you to assess the event linguistically beforehand.
Does the event website contain quality content in your language?
The websites for most trade shows are in Japanese, English, and Chinese; however, this is not necessarily an indication that the event itself is targeted at a foreign audience. Many event sites are built on templates used by the facilitating event company. So while they might be able to speak several language and translate content, the people actually showing up might not.
What you want to look for is content which has been purposely written for speakers of your language. For example, the recent Inbound Business expo website had a lot of good information in English. But at the event itself, despite the obvious international focus of inbound business, there were fewer English-speakers than one would expect. On the other hand the website for The World Food and Beverage Great Expo, despite the questionable use of English in the title, actually made an effort to appeal to non-Japanese.
Was the application form submittable without Japanese characters?
Japanese has four character sets, two of which have half-width variations within standard web fonts. The word hito, meaning person, could in theory be written in six different ways on a web page.
Some web forms require information to be entered in a specific character set or it will fail validation. The reasoning is a bit circumstantial, but if you cannot sign up for an event without knowing the ins and outs of typing in Japanese it could be indicative of who is going to end up attending.
How many foreign exhibitors are present?
It would seem obvious that the more foreign exhibitors are present at an event, the more people would be able to speak foreign languages. This is sometimes accurate and sometimes not.
Most of the time, a booth for an American firm would have an English speaker or a Chinese booth would have a Mandarin speaker. But many foreign companies in Japan have gone native. Especially in long-established industries like real estate, automotive, and technology, there are many companies where the staff simply do not need to speak anything but Japanese.
Look at the exhibitor list and try to see if there are a good number of companies without long histories in Japan. Or better still, if you recognise some companies in your industry who you know are trying to enter the Japanese market, that may be an indicator of the general level of foreign language-friendliness. For example, nearly a third of exhibitors at Samurai Startup Expo last year were from Israel — almost none actually had offices in Japan.
Are there international pavilions?
In the dozens of events we’ve attended in Japan, international pavilions are almost always manned by non-Japanese. It’s naturally part of the foreign appeal that the Germany section would have German exhibitors, for example. To Japanese, these pavilions are little pieces of international culture that they can sample in a day. For non-Japanese they are, for better or for worse, safe spaces where English can be freely used.
A word of caution: as pavilions are usually segregated, they are sometimes not indicative of the atmosphere of an event as a whole. So while your language might be usable in a small section of a trade show, if the rest of the floor is populated by Japanese companies and long-established foreign companies then you’ll probably need Japanese.